How YouTube Helped Lift AWOLNATION into Superstardom

Red Bull Records recording artist AWOLNATION is perhaps the only rock band working today who best understands the strange and wonderful after-effects of well-done, user-generated YouTube content. There is no practical science to explain exactly why the band’s single “Sail,” from their 2011 debut Megalithic Symphony, inspired so many users on the platform to create their own clips to accompany the song. The result, however, has catapulted Aaron Bruno (the band’s central songwriter and mastermind) into superstardom, bringing his music to hundreds of millions of viewers, while helping reinvent the way in which music is marketed, distributed, and heard.

In fact, Red Bull Records made the unusual decision to stream AWOLNATION’s newest album Run, track-by-track, directly to YouTube, featuring a click-through icon to purchase the release. Undoubtedly, this was a sound decision, considering how many of the band’s fans populate the platform on a daily basis.

With the new album out, available everywhere, and AWOLNATION firmly on the rise, we sat down with Red Bull Records Head of Digital Marketing Justin Dreyfuss and Hayley Young, the director of the band’s newest clip for “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf),” about YouTube, user-generated content, and the ever-evolving puzzle of how best to deliver music to fans in the digital age.

ZEFR Insights: When did you first notice that AWOLNATION was generating so many views on YouTube and what was your initial reaction when it turned out it was coming from unofficial, user-generated videos for “Sail”?

Justin Dreyfuss: We’ve actually had over 55 million views on our official video for “Sail” across multiple channels including VEVO, AWOLNATION’s YouTube channel, and the Red Bull Records YouTube channel. We have streamlined our YouTube strategy and decided to focus on Red Bull Records’ channel – messaging from a single source is the best way to reach a broad audience, not just for AWOLNATION, but for all of our artists. I came on board 10 months ago, but I know the history of fan-generated videos have been a big part of the success of “Sail” for years. There are actually 125 thousand videos with “Sail” in it, with countless millions of views, and we are really happy that the song has performed so strongly. I think because of the friendly approach we’ve taken with YouTube creators, it has only helped the longevity of the success of the song. Now, with the use of PFC [the ability to harness the power of fan uploads to drive traffic to official content], which we can implement from our Red Bull Records channel, we are now able to make sure any video that uses our music promotes the latest videos from our artists.

ZEFR: Rock bands typically don’t embrace YouTube as enthusiastically as pop stars or “personalities.” What has Red Bull Records learned from AWOLNATION’s success on the platform and how has it informed your overall social media strategy with the other artists on your label’s roster?

JD: I think rock bands are very much embracing YouTube. Not just on music videos, but in showcasing their musicianship by recording covers and performing stripped-down sessions of their music. If done right, it’s a great way to highlight lyrics, remix your own song and even challenge yourself by performing in a place that is visually enticing, but not necessarily a traditional venue or setup. We’ve learned that YouTube is a great place for rock artists to be versatile – we can put up different kinds of content, find out what resonates, and deliver more.

“We’ve learned that YouTube is a great place for rock artists to be versatile – we can put up different kinds of content, find out what resonates, and deliver more.”

ZEFR: During the MTV era (before they began broadcasting “reality” television), the music video was primarily a promotional tool to sell records. In what ways has Red Bull Records leveraged the resurgence of the music video on YouTube to help its artists?

JD: We know music fans are going on YouTube to not only discover music, but get insight into what the musicians they like stand for and represent. YouTube can help complete the picture for fans, giving more information about, and access to, their favorite artists as well as inviting new fans in.

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Interview with Hayley Young, director of AWOLNATION’s “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)” video.

ZEFR Insights: For non-­filmmakers, can you describe just how difficult it is to direct a single-­take video, which is what you managed to execute for AWOLNATION’s “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)”?

Hayley Young: I suppose the best metaphor to creating a single-take video to a non-­filmmaker is to compare it to being 16 years old and throwing a party at your parents’ house, despite them making it very clear what hell will fall upon you if they catch you. It takes meticulous planning, damage control, the ability to foresee the worst (and often inevitable) scenarios, while having tested backup plans in place to mend/fix/bury any necessary evidence. How does one accumulate alcohol when only 16? Make the right friends. What items in this house are most susceptible to being knocked over? Lock them in the closet. What areas of the house might be more vulnerable to flying liquids/solids? Remove all wall hangings. How to entertain without the use of your parents belongings, i.e. stereo system, hot tub, or any other tempting device that you cannot afford to replace as an adolescent? Borrow from friends who have cool shit. Foresight is key, as is having a strong network of support. Do you get along with your neighbors? If not, start ASAP. They will be your best allies if shit hits the fan.

ZEFR: What about the song inspired you to undertake this difficult approach?

HY: Why I approached this project with the single take in mind was twofold. One, being that the artist was inspired to reach out to me based on my past videos, most of which are single ­takes. The second was logistics. Single-take videos are not as difficult as they are challenging. There are far more benefits to shooting a single take than some might realize. For one, you know exactly what you are looking to get in camera before a single crew member arrives on set. The pre­planning needed (although daunting to think about creating it), serves as a wonderful tool; a logistical blueprint that you are able to rely on to keep your crew and cast pointed toward the same destination.

The best part of shooting a single take is the energy it calls upon all those involved. There is literally no down time for anyone on crew or cast. Everyone owns a piece of the project, and with the right communication and preparation, everyone involved wants the collective effort to be successful. Once you get everyone rolling, it takes little time to hit fifth gear. The rush of a group of people focused on a collective task is worth every second of doubt/fear/worry that might slip into your head during the process. Also a huge bonus: no editing. Once you get the shot, you got the shot.

At the time I was working on this, we as a nation were dealing with the fresh frustrations of racial conflicts, and opinions were flying. I couldn’t look at my Facebook page without seeing a range of perspectives regarding the current events that often felt more concerned with having an opinion than seeking a solution. From both sides. I was getting angry, a lot. I felt that seas of people were being labeled with the ease of a “like” or “comment.” I felt it was a matter of picking a team, regardless of the damage that such generalizations could place on the hopes of making real change.

With that in mind, and the theme of the song (“I’m gonna make a deal with the bad wolf so the bad wolf wont bite no more”), I felt inspired to create a visual that was inspired by human communities, conflicts, and spirit. Avoiding the literal, I based my characters off of the simple idea of one side sharing space with another. The “bad wolf” can be whatever the viewer wants it to be. It’s not my job or the video’s to dictate that. The goal of the video is to embrace the song, its movements, its rhythms, its feeling, and to allow the song to inspire the narrative, not the other way around. I just felt creating two groups of characters, at odds (albeit subtly) in the beginning, coming to collect for a common movement, would open the door for the viewer to decide what they saw on the other side.

ZEFR: As a filmmaker, what are the benefits of YouTube beyond the obvious upside of getting your work seen worldwide without “permission” from a broadcast programmer? In what ways do you interact with YouTube as an artist and as a viewer?

HY: I have found viewers have become incredibly sophisticated. Having so much content from so many hungry artists, sharing their ingenuity in all ways their current technology and skill sets allow, viewers have become the new foodies of visual entertainment. YouTube has exposed so many people to so much content that content creators have big shoes to fill. That challenge is extremely cathartic and hypnotizing at the same time.

“Viewers have become incredibly sophisticated. Having so much content from so many hungry artists, sharing their ingenuity in all ways their current technology and skill sets allow, viewers have become the new foodies of visual entertainment.”

Projects of all scales are now on the table. An artist can see my work and seek me out, rather than relying exclusively on the network of their record label, management, etc.

Where there is soil and water, there is also mud and gross things. YouTube creates an eco-center of the good and the bad, in higher doses and to greater extents. The dynamics of the viewer’s role is still finding its place with artists. In the meantime, it’s anyone’s game as to how to engage them. The solutions coming from that melting pot are not only extremely interesting, they are pushing boundaries in the industry I have voluntarily infiltrated, at a time when I might have a chance at hitting a creative stride simply by trying to prove I have earned my place in the world YouTube has created.

Featured photo by Ramona Rosales


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